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hadows, shadows, everywhere. A People’s Atlas of Nuclear Colorado does not follow a straight line, nor does it permit one to contain the uncontainable. The nuclear production cycle is at every point haunted by its toxic shadows. Those shadows puncture hubris and call for accountability.
Some two decades ago, fate conspired to bring me to live in eastern Washington state, 50 miles downwind from Hanford. Hanford was the primary site for the production of plutonium to feed the U.S. nuclear weapons program during the Cold War. That plutonium also fed Fat Man, the nuclear bomb that exploded in Nagasaki, killing between 40,000 to 75,000 people instantly and many more over weeks, months, years to come.
The shadow stories that set Krupar and Kanouse on their journey through Colorado sent me on a journey away from Washington, to follow Fat Man over its global production chain, trying to take stock of who, what, and how we remember that one single bomb at its various nodes of production, testing, and use.
The B-Reactor at Hanford is now part of the Manhattan Project National Historic Park project where its commemoration tells a story of American triumph and scientific prowess, while in its shadow lies the wasted lives of displaced indigenous groups and irradiated nuclear workers, downwinders, and wildlife. Further along the chain is the Trinity Site where the bomb was tested before being dropped in Nagasaki, and which offers to the public, twice during the year, an opportunity to pay homage to the legacy of Robert Oppenheimer and his ingenious crew. Outside its gates, downwinder communities cry for recognition of their wasted bodies and habitats. The Nagasaki Atomic Bomb Museum offers perhaps the fullest and most polished story of the dangers of nuclear weapons use and a plea for future peace, although that site too makes short shrift of Japan’s own war crimes and the long-term intergenerational effects of radioactive exposure. But the story of Fat Man really begins in the uranium mines in Shinkolobwe in the district of Katanga under the brutal colonial regime of Belgian Congo. Of all the nodes along Fat Man’s journey, this is both the most precariously contained as well as the least commemorated site. There, impoverished Congolese communities continue to inhale radioactive dust while their long legacy of nuclear suffering finds neither reparation nor remembrance.
I followed Fat Man to try and tell a story from the shadows that could break apart our conceits of us and them, to reveal the ways that geopolitical divisions turn us away from common (albeit unequal) suffering, to find ways to build solidarities from sufferings that were invisible to statist narratives of war and victory. A People’s Atlas of Nuclear Colorado reminds me that I did not need to travel so far from home to tell this global story. In just that one state lies a story of the slow and persistent violence that occurs all along the nuclear fuel cycle. And the obfuscation of that violence by state and corporate narratives that speak the language of national security or regulatory safety or environmental remediation. And, in the shadows, the activists and artists and communities and animals and plants and the earth itself that has spoken back at every turn and at every attempt to deny experiences and fears.
A shadow, James Ferguson (2006: 17) tells us, “is not simply a negative space, a space of absence; it is a likeness, an inseparable other-who-is-also oneself-to whom one is bound,” a haunting that is a call to responsibility. A People’s Atlas of Nuclear Colorado is, above all, a call to our responsibility to all the wasted lives and landscapes, not just far away but all around us, that demand from us our attention and action.
Traveling with the digital Atlas through Nuclear Colorado brought me back to Nuclear Washington. Along with the iconic B-Reactor, Hanford is also home to 56 million gallons of radioactive waste that sits in leaky tanks, making it the most contaminated site in the Western hemisphere. Near it sits the Columbia Generating Station, a commercial nuclear power plant generating energy to heat and cool our homes, and along with it, more toxic waste to kill us slowly over time. Uranium for nuclear weapons was once mined at Midnite Mine on the Spokane Tribe of Indians’ Reservation, and its aftermath continues in sick bodies and impaired lives. Washington is also home to the third largest nuclear weapons arsenal in the world, trailing only Russia and the United States as a whole. Launched from Bangor Base on the Kitsap Peninsula, submarines roaming the Pacific Ocean carry deadly high-yield nuclear warheads that can incinerate entire cities but also newer, lower-yield, more-likely-to-be-used warheads. Further east sits Joint Base Lewis-McChord, the only military unit ready to transport nuclear weapons and materials by air, and in Spokane County, the Fairchild Airforce Base to fuel nuclear-armed planes in air. All those strategic nuclear sites make Washington vulnerable as a target in war.
To many, Washington appears as a progressive, peaceful beacon in an increasingly violent country. But from the shadows, Nuclear Washington, not unlike Nuclear Colorado, is a warzone killing its own, making its own more vulnerable to death and disease. I pause my journey through A People’s Atlas of Nuclear Colorado to listen to the hauntings close to home.
Ferguson J (2006) Global Shadows: Africa in the Neoliberal World Order. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
Shampa Biswas is Judge & Mrs. Timothy A. Paul Chair of Political Science and Professor of Politics. She is an international relations theorist specializing in postcolonial theory and nuclear politics.